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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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In a very dark Chamber at a round Hole, about one
third Part of an Inch broad, made in the Shut of a
Window, I placed a Glass Prism, whereby the Beam
of the Sun's Light, which came in at that Hole, might
be refracted upwards toward the opposite Wall of the
Chamber, and there form a colour'd Image of the Sun”
(Opticks, Book I, Part I, Prop. II). So Isaac Newton
described the simple apparatus that led to important
discoveries about light. The Opticks, in which he
reported them, was not published until 1704, but many
of his theories were known well before that time. “Part
of the ensuing Discourse about Light,” he noted in his


introduction, “was written at the Desire of some
Gentlemen of the Royal Society in the Year 1675 and
then sent to their Secretary, and read at their Meetings,
and the rest were added about twelve Years later.” His
theories were known, too, from lectures he delivered
before his students at Cambridge. John Locke had
accepted them before he published his Essay Concern-
ing Human Understanding
in 1690, as may be seen
by comparison between the printed work and a draft
of 1672. A letter of Joseph Addison shows that the
optical theories were known to Nicolas de Male-
branche, whom Addison met while he was making the
Grand Tour at the end of the seventeenth century.

Newton said in a letter to Henry Oldenburg, long
Secretary of the Royal Society, that he considered his
early discoveries about light and color as “the oddest,
if not the most considerable deductions which hath
hitherto been made in the operations of Nature.” Many
laymen found them so. The “deductions” of the
Principia were of course known to men of letters and
are widely reflected in both poetry and prose. But men
could read the English Opticks who could not grasp
the Latin Principia. I. Bernard Cohen has well ex-
pressed the difference in the Preface to his edition of
the Opticks:

The Opticks invites and holds the attention of the non-
specialist reader while... the Principia, is as austere and
forbidding as it can possibly be. Of course, the general
reader of the Opticks would be more interested in the final
section of “Queries” than in the rest of the work, just as
the general reader of the Principia would be drawn to the
General Scholium at the end of Book Three; but whereas
in the Opticks such a reader could enjoy about 70 pages,
in the Principia there would be but four. The latter would
discuss for him the mechanism of universal gravitation and
give him a hint of the direction of Newton's thinking about
this important problem; but the former would allow the
reader to roam, with great Newton as his guide, through
the major unresolved problems of science and even the
relation of the whole world of nature to Him who had
created it.

The publication of the first edition of the Opticks
aroused a certain amount of interest among men of
letters. Addison did not devote a full paper of the
Spectator to the work, but referred to Newton's optical
theories a number of times. Richard Blackmore showed
knowledge of theories of the Opticks in his Creation,
published in 1712. Alexander Pope used figures drawn
from the prism and Newton's theories of color in An
Essay on Criticism
(1711) and the second version of
The Rape of the Lock (1714). “False Eloquence,” he
said, is like a prism, spreading gaudy color everywhere.
Colors come from light and return to it:

When the ripe Colours soften and unite,
And sweetly melt into just Shade and Light.

(Essay on Criticism, lines 488-89)

Pope's most charming adaptations are in passages on
the “Fays, Faeries, Genii, Elves and Daemons,” which
he added to the second edition of The Rape of the Lock.
Among these are some who ordinarily live in the realms
of ether, where they are clothed in pure light, but when
they descend to earth, light is refracted:

Loose to the Wind their airy Garments flew,
Thin glitt'ring Textures of the filmy Dew;
Dipt in the richest Tinctures of the Skies,
Where Light disports in ever-mingling Dies,
While ev'ry Beam new transient Colours flings,
Colours that change whene'er they wave their Wings.

(II, 63-68)

The most extended poetic treatment of Newton before
his death was in The Ecstasy, by John Hughes, written
shortly before the poet's death in 1717. Hughes seems
to have set a pattern for a number of later poets in
a passage in which the soul of Newton, “the great
Columbus of the skies,” is imagined on daily visits to
the stars and planets, “in search of knowledge for
Mankind below.” Ideas from the Principia and the
Opticks were in Hughes's mind when he wrote:

Here let me, thy Companion, stray,
From Orb to Orb, and now behold
Unnumber'd Suns, all Seas of molten Gold;
And trace each Comet's wand'ring Way,
And now descry Light's Fountain-Head,
And measure its descending Speed;
Or Learn how Sun-born Colours rise
In Rays distinct and in the Skies,
Blended in yellow Radiance flow,
Or stain the fleecy Cloud, or streak the Wat'ry Bow;
Or now diffus'd their beauteous Tinctures shed
On ev'ry Planets rising Hills, and ev'ry verdant Mead.

These were only preliminaries to the poetic outburst
that followed Newton's death in 1727, when the feeling
for “Britain's justest pride” amounted almost to deifi-
cation. A host of elegies and eulogies poured from the
press in 1727 and 1728, none greater than Pope's
succinct couplet:

Nature, and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, Let Newton be! and All was Light.

Some of the dedicatory poems were based on
Hughes's Ecstasy and some upon the ode which
Edmund Halley had introduced into the first edition
of the Principia. Other verses were amorphous, as if
as yet the poets had found no pattern. A model was
offered by James Thomson, “To the Memory of Sir
Isaac Newton,” in which he hymned the author of the


Principia and the Opticks. Like Halley he praised the
discovery of universal gravitation and discussed comets
and the effect of the moon on tides. He paid particular
attention to Newton's discovery of the relation be-
tween light and color:

Even Light itself, which every thing discloses
Shone undiscovered, till his brighter mind
Untwisted all the shining robes of day;
And, from the whitening undistinguish'd blaze,
Collecting every ray into his kind,
To the charmed eye educed the gorgeous train
Of parent colours

(lines 96-102).

In Thomson's elegy, Newtonian poets found a pat-
tern for poems, often beginning with an apostrophe
to light, calling the roll of the “parent colours,” men-
tioning the rainbow, and concluding, as did Thomson,
with a suggestion that Newton had added new beauty
to the world:

Did ever poet image aught so fair,
Dreaming in whispering groves by the hoarse brook.
Or prophet to whose rapture heaven descends!

(lines 119-21)

In addition to the model of Thomson's poem,
Newtonian poets were stimulated by the publication
in 1728 of Henry Pemberton's A View of Sir Isaac
Newton's Philosophy.
This was particularly designed
for the layman who, Pemberton said in his Introduc-
tion, might better grasp “the Force and Beauty of this
great Genius... when the simple and genuine Pro-
ductions of the Philosopher are disengaged from the
Problems of the Geometrician.” Every gentleman,
Pemberton continued, may come to understand the
structure of the universe “with the same Ease he now
acquires a Taste of the Magnificence of a Plan of
Architecture, or the Elegance of a beautiful Plantation;
without engaging in the minute and tedious Calcula-
tions necessary to their Production.” As the Principia
had been introduced by Halley's poem, Pemberton
used as introduction “A Poem on Newton” by Richard
Glover, less charming than Thomson's but more tech-
nical, dealing with gravitation, light, and color. Here
versifiers could find the language they needed.

Other scientific writers of the period, such as J. T.
Desaguliers, Colin MacLaurin, Benjamin Martin, James
Ferguson, and L'Abbé Pluche, followed Pemberton in
popular expositions of the Newtonian theories. William
Derham, in the many editions of his Physico-Theology
and Astro-Theology, discussed both the Principia and
the Opticks. With books of popular science pouring
from the press, and models like Thomson's and Glover's
before them, poets set themselves happily to versify
Newtonian theories. We shall first consider some of
their expositions of light and color.


Until the period shortly after Newton's death, the
chief source for descriptions of light among eighteenth-
century poets had been Milton. “L'Allegro” and “Il
Penseroso” were little studies in light and darkness,
but in Paradise Lost, in the treatment of Hell, Heaven,
and Chaos, darkness and light had become highly sym-
bolic. In part because of his biblical, philosophical, and
poetic heritage, in part because of his blindness, Light
was to Milton godlike, awful. No single passage from
Paradise Lost was more familiar to his eighteenth-
century followers than the invocation in Book III:

Hail, holy Light, offspring of Heaven first-born!
Or of th' Eternal coeternal beam
May I express thee unblamed? Since God is light,
And never but in unapproachèd light
Dwelt from eternity, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.

Echoes from that invocation, with phrases from
other prologues and Satan's address to the sun, recur
frequently among the later poets. Yet the differences
are as striking as the similarities. James Thomson,
David Mallett, Richard Savage, Christopher Smart did
not forget Milton, but they also followed Newton. They
remembered that the ultimate source of light is God
but they were even more conscious that the immediate
source of light is the sun. Newton might say that the
“Science of Colours” was a mathematical speculation,
based on his prism, but the interest of the descriptive
poets in the Opticks was not mathematical. Ironically
enough, Newton—who had no interest in poetry—gave
color and light back to poetry, from which they had
almost disappeared during the period of Cartesianism.
To the eighteenth-century poets light was magnificent
in itself, but it was most beautiful when it was refracted
into color. Poets discovered new beauties in individual
colors of the prism, at sunrise and sunset, in the succes-
sion of colors throughout the day. There entered into
poetry a “symbolism of the spectrum,” suggested by
many, but by none more deftly than Thomson in “To
the Memory of Newton.” Beginning with the “whiten-
ing undistinguished blaze” of light, he introduced the
“gorgeous train/ Of parent colours”:

First the flaming red
Sprung vivid forth; the tawny orange next;
And next delicious yellow; by whose side
Fell the kind beams of all-refreshing green.
Then the pure blue, that swells autumnal skies,
Ethereal played; and then, of sadder hue,
Emerged the deepest indigo, as when
The heavy-skirted evening droops with frost;
While the last gleamings of refracted light
Died in the fainting violet away

(lines 102-11).


Many of the eighteenth-century poets followed
Thomson in calling the roll of precious stones. The
colors of gems, like those of flowers, had been used
as poetic materials for centuries, but the Newtonian
poets wore their rue with a difference. Again Thomson
outdid all others in a deft passage in “Summer” in
which light affects all parts of Nature, animate and
inanimate. Diving beneath the surface of the earth into
the “embowelled caverns,” light wakens the precious

The unfruitful rock itself, impregned by thee,
In dark retirement forms the lucid stone.
The lively diamond drinks thy purest rays,
Collected light compact....
At thee the ruby lights its deepening glow,
And with a waving radiance inward flames.
From thee the sapphire, solid ether, takes
Its hue cerulean; and, of evening tinct,
The purple-streaming amethyst is thine.
With thy own smile the yellow topaz burns;
Nor deeper verdure dyes the robes of Spring,
When first she gives it to the southern gale,
Than the green emerald shows. But, all combined,
Thick through the whitening opal play thy beams;
Or flying from its surface, form
A trembling variance of revolving hue,
As the site varies in the graver's hand

(lines 140-59).

Here are the red, orange, yellow, blue, green, violet
of the spectrum, but here also something more subtle
—the resolution of light into colors and the return of
colors to light. We see first the pure light of the dia-
mond, pass through the prismatic colors, then watch
them brought together in the “whitening opal,” which
reflects them all, and begins to return them to the white
light from which they were derived.

Most obviously the prism was associated by poets
with “Newton's rainbow.” In spite of Newton's own
careful statements about his predecessors, the rainbow
in English literature became and remained Newton's.
A dozen poets described it, but since Thomson was
the best among them, we may use a passage that he
added to “Spring” a year after his poem to Newton,
lines which he rewrote in at least two later versions:

Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion running from the red
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twines of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling blaze

(lines 203-12).

In his description of the rainbow, as in a comet-passage
in “Summer,” Thomson contrasted the attitude of sim-
ple souls who fear the comet and of the swain who
runs to catch the rainbow with that of the “enlightened
few/ Whose godlike minds philosophy exalts.” He was
characteristic of many who thought themselves intel-
lectually mature, having outgrown the swain seeking
for a pot of gold, or Noah, to whom the rainbow was
miracle. Thomson's generation did not feel, as did
Keats, that Newton had taken beauty from poetry. He
had added new beauty because he had added new

But, like the Newtonian poets, having observed the
refraction of light into the colors of the spectrum, let
us return these colors to light, and consider the eight-
eenth-century obsession with the latter. Milton's influ-
ence is still there, though, like the moon, he shone by
reflected light after “Newton rose, in orient beauty
bright.” The light that shines so persistently in eight-
eenth-century poetry is, of course, not entirely Miltonic
or Newtonian, but goes back to remote ancestors they
shared in common, over whom we shall not pause.
Light-figures are persistent in the dedicatory poems.
As Newton's soul departed this earth, it rose to light.
Allan Ramsay wrote in his “Ode to the Memory of
Sir Isaac Newton”:

The god-like man now mounts the sky,
Exploring all yon radiant spheres;
And in one view can more descry
Than here below in eighty years.
Aaron Hill, in his “Epitaph to Sir Isaac Newton,”
when the Suns he lighted up shall fade,
And all the worlds he found are still decay'd;
Then void and waste, eternity shall lie,
And Time, and Newton's name, together die.
Newton, said Christopher Smart, in “On the Omni-
science of the Supreme Being,”

shone supreme, who was himself the light,
Ere yet Refraction learn'd her skill to paint,
And bent athwart the clouds her beauteous bow.

Old figures of speech came back in this generation
with new significance. Light was “the spark, the light,
the lamp, the ray, Essence or Effluence of Essential
Day.” It was “a bright emanation of the Godhead,”
a “fountain of living lustre.” The sun was the “fountain
of light and colour, warmth of life! The king of glory!”
It was the “fountain of the golden day,” the “ocean
of flame.” The Deity of the eighteenth century dwelt
amidst “the blaze of uncreated light.” His creation,
Nature, was “a child of heavenly light”; his creature,


man, “a beam, a mere effluvium of his majesty.” “Sci-
ence,” his creature and evidence for his existence, was
“a fair diffusive ray from the great source of mental
day” which with “resistless light” dispersed phantoms
of night. In various of the “excursion poems” of the
century, which tended to subsume the “cosmic voy-
ages” of the preceding period, poets divided their
attention between earth and the heavens. Color was
largely associated with the terrestrial world and with
beauty; light radiates in passages on the heavens, asso-
ciated less with beauty than with sublimity.


Poets like James Thomson were not only descriptive;
they prided themselves on also being “scientific” and
“philosophic” poets. Mark Akenside was speaking for
them when he wrote in his “Hymn to Science”:

Give me to learn each secret cause;
Let number's, figure's, motion's laws
Revealed before me stand.
As Edward Young said, they had been “born in an age
more curious than devout.” Under the influence of
Newton sprang up a whole group of “scientific poets,”
most of them now forgotten. Among the most “scien-
tific” were John Reynolds in various editions of A View
of Death
(1709, 1716, 1725); Moses Browne in his Essay
on the Universe
(1735, 1739); Henry Brooke in Univer-
sal Beauty
(1734, 1736). The works of most of them,
widely read in their day, belong less to the history of
poetry than to that of the many encyclopedias of sci-
ence intended for the layman. Indeed, various versifiers
included in their so-called poems elaborate series of
notes drawn from encyclopedias and from such popu-
larizers of Newton as have been mentioned.

All the versifiers—and many of the descriptive
poets—were greatly interested in theories of the speed
of light. Indeed, they had every reason to be, since
few more spectacular discoveries have been made than
that of Olaus Römer [or Roemer (1644-1719)] whose
careful astronomical measurements, by proving its
movement and velocity, put an end to the scholastic
theory that light is instantaneous. Today the layman
speaks easily of “millions of light years” but no such
association had been made in earlier times. The poets
cited Römer, Christian Huygens, Newton, and others.
Reynolds quoted Newton in saying that rays of light
spend “about seven or eight minutes in coming to us
from the sun,” and added that it was estimated that
light travels 130,000 miles a second. Thomson wrote
in his poem on Newton:

Nor could the darting speed of light immense
Escape his swift pursuit and measureing eye.
“How distant some of these nocturnal suns,” wrote
Young in Night Thoughts (1742-45):

So distant (says the sage), 'twere not absurd
To doubt if beams sent out at Nature's birth,
Are yet arrived in this so foreign world;
Though nearly half as rapid as their flight.

(IX, 1224-28)

If the poets were confused about the propagation of
light, they had every reason, since Newton himself had
vacillated between a wave and a corpuscular theory,
and in his discussion about the “Aethereal Medium”
in the Opticks had said candidly, “I do not know what
this Aether is.” Certainly the poets knew much less.
Yet they grappled heroically with problems of the
nature of ether and air and with theories of the trans-
mission of light and sound.

Even more interesting to the versifiers were ques-
tions about the physics of sight, with particular refer-
ence to the optics of the eye. Here they found materials
in the “Queries” affixed to the Opticks, which they
seized upon as gospel truth, though Newton himself
had phrased them in often hesitant words. As Richard
Jago wrote in his long poem Edge-Hill (1765, but
sections published much earlier), the “vulgar race of
men” accepted evidence of their senses without ques-

But sage philosophy explains the cause
Of each phenomenon of sight, or sound,
Taste, touch, or smell; each organ's inmost frame,
And correspondence with external things.
On questions of how we see, philosopher and layman
put himself to school to Newton. It is significant that,
although this was the great age of English satire,
Newton was taken so seriously—even reverently—that
he remained largely above and beyond satire. Descartes
and Hobbes might be damned with impunity, Locke
and Berkeley lead to laughter. But the “godlike
Newton” remained aloof.

One of the problems that most interested the layman
was the question of a “man born blind,” that had been
raised by William Molyneux, further developed by
Locke, Berkeley, and others. What if such a man should
gain sight in years of maturity? Would his visual re-
sponse to objects prove the same as his earlier tactual
response? In his Essay, Locke had told of a man born
blind who boasted that he knew what colors signified,
and upon a friend's “demanding what scarlet was,”
replied, “It was the sound of a trumpet.” Newton's
persistent interest in the “harmony” of color and sound
afforded important evidence to those who believed that
the blind might “see” color in terms of sound, since
Newton had frequently drawn mathematical similari-


ties between certain color-rings and the chord.
Synesthesia became a matter for comment. Great pop-
ular interest was taken in the “clavecin” or “colour-
organ” exhibited in London in 1757 by Père Louis
Bertrand Castel to prove that the blind might hear the
music of the eyes, the deaf see the music of the ears,
while normal man might appreciate both music and
color better by enjoying them at the same time.

In popular works of the eighteenth century we find
many expositions of the physics and physiology of
optics and various lists of optical terms which the
gentleman, and even the lady, were evidently supposed
to know. They referred easily to the “Tunica Cornea”
and to the “Tunica Retina,” terms which they had
learned from Newton. They had much to say of pic-
tures “painted” on the eye; they spoke of the lenslike
function of the “crystalline humour.” With Henry
Needler they asked

Who form'd the curious texture of the eye,
And cloath'd it with the various tunicles
Of texture exquisite; with chrystal juice
Supply'd it, to transmit the rays of light?
“Pictures” of external objects, Newton had pointed out,
which are “lively painted” on the “thinner Coats” of
the eye and propagated along the fibres of optic nerves
into the brain, are the cause of vision. Why, having
two eyes, do we ordinarily see “single” rather than
“double”? The layman is always interested in scientific
explanations of imperfect vision, which often touch his
own experience. Newton had mentioned among causes
for “faint” and “confused” vision such diseases as jaun-
dice, the decay of the eye through age, shortsightedness
or farsightedness, or, as he put them, the visual limita-
tions of men “whose Eyes are too plump” and others
suffering from the defect of “plumpness in the Eye.”
Berkeley further developed the problems from other
points of view. The descriptive and the scientific poets
frequently discussed theories of imperfect vision, none
more frequently than Thomson who used several of
them in the Seasons. He too mentioned the effect of
jaundice: “The yellow-tinging plague/ Internal vision
taints.” He introduced into “Autumn” a familiar cause
of “double vision,” an evening's jollity that went too

Before their maudlin eyes,
Seen dim and blue, the double tapers dance,
Like the sun wading through the misty sky.

(lines 554-56)

His characters experienced “confused vision” in
autumn fog, when the sun “sheds weak and blind, his
wide refracted ray.” One of his best descriptions of
“faint vision” occurred on an evening in “Summer”:

A faint erroneous ray,
Glances from the imperfect surfaces of things,
Flings half an image on the straining eye;
While wavering woods, and villages, and streams,
And rocks, and mountain-tops that long retained
The ascending gleam are all one swimming scene
Uncertain if beheld

(lines 1687-93).

Indeed the poets of the Age of Newton found
theories of optics particularly apt for application to
familiar antitheses. For centuries Light had been
equated with Reason; old ideas of the passions could
be fitted neatly into the new idea of color refracted
from light. Light “discolour'd through our Passions”
afforded a nice variant for an old idea. The distinction
between Reason and Fancy could be expressed in terms
of the new optical theories. Fancy responded to “im-
perfect,” “faint,” “confused” sight, while Reason
always saw clearly.


The poets of the Age of Newton read into their
master certain aesthetic implications—largely what
might be called an aesthetic of color and light in which
the Opticks became curiously fused with Addison's
Pleasures of the Imagination. Light was associated with
the Sublime, color with the Beautiful. (This associa-
tion—although not there specifically with reference to
Newton—is treated elsewhere in this Dictionary under
“The Sublime in External Nature.”) It was Newton,
many of the poets felt, who gave color back to poetry
and flooded the world with light.

When we come to consider what may be called the
metaphysical implications read into the Opticks, we
shall find the poets for the first time beginning to part
company and hear occasional dissonance in what has
seemed until now a paean of praise. In his “Hymn to
Science,” Mark Akenside, for all his admiration for
Newton, warned

There, Science! veil thy daring eye,
Nor dive too deep, nor soar too high.
Pope in An Essay on Man went further in criticizing
growing tendencies of the generation:

Go, wond'rous creature! mount where Science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old Time, and regulate the Sun;...
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!
Superior beings, when of late they saw
A mortal Man unfold all Nature's law,
Admired such Wisdom in an earthly state,
And shew'd a Newton, as we shew an Ape

(II, 19-34).

It was not Newton himself but the Newtonians Pope


castigated. But even Newton, with all his genius, could
not solve eternal mysteries:

Could he, whose rules the rapid Comet bind,
Describe or fix one movement of his Mind?
Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend,
Explain his own beginning, or his end?
Alas, what wonder!

(II, 35-39).

There is a point beyond which neither science nor
metaphysics can go. There are limitations to science
and to human Reason. “Trace Science, then, with
Modesty thy guide.” It was to the lavish and un-
restrained adulation aroused by Newton that Pope
replied in The Dunciad, to some extent in the edition
of 1728—written when memorial-tributes to Newton
were pouring from the press—and much more in the
“New” or “Greater” Dunciad of 1741-42.

Between the period of the early and the later
Dunciad the tide was turning. Pope protested the
excesses to which poets of the Age of Newton had gone
in elevating science and metaphysics above religion
and ethics, in believing that ultimate truth was to be
found in the works of mathematicians, scientists,
philosophers. The metaphysicians were oversubtle in
spinning “cobwebs of learning” out of their own sub-
stance, absurd in clothing in elaborate philosophical
jargon what was obvious to common sense. If intellec-
tual England continued as she seemed to be bound,
the sons of “Dulness”—in the Dunciad the word con-
noted not that “Dunces” knew too little but that they
prided themselves on knowing too much—would come
to worship man rather than God:

'Tis yours a Bacon or a Locke to blame,
A Newton's genius, or a Milton's flame:
But oh! with One, immortal one dispense;
The source of Newton's Light, of Bacon's Sense.

(Dunciad, III, 215-18)

But there were various other implications read into
the Opticks.

In a period when the Cartesian shears seemed to
have cut matter “out there” from mind “in here,” such
problems of vision and perception as have been men-
tioned seemed more poignant than to us. Plato's man,
sitting in his cave, watching the shadows on his wall,
became a symbol of the greatest thinkers of the Age
of Newton, as Locke's familiar “closet simile” suggests.
The same general symbolism could be read into
Newton. He who had given color back to the poets
and flooded the world with light, “Newton with his
prism and silent face,” he too had darkened his Cam-
bridge room to see light and color. Light entered that
dark chamber only through a pin-prick, light reflected,
refracted, inflected. We may let two of our contem-
porary philosophers speak.

E. A. Burtt wrote in The Metaphysical Foundations
of Modern Physical Science

It was of the greatest consequence for succeeding thought
that now the great Newton's authority was squarely behind
the view of the cosmos which saw in man a puny, irrelevant
spectator (so far as a being wholly imprisoned in a dark
room can be called such) of the vast mathematical system
whose regular motions according to mathematical principles
constituted the world of nature.... The world that people
had thought themselves living in—a world rich with colour
and sound, redolent with fragrance, filled with gladness, love
and beauty, speaking everywhere of purposive harmony and
creative ideals—was crowded now into minute corners in
the brains of scattered organic beings. The really important
world outside was a world hard, cold, colourless, silent and
dead; a world of quantity, a world of mathematically com-
putable motions in mechanical regularity

(1932 ed., pp.

Let us add some sentences from Alfred North
Whitehead, as he discusses the mechanistic in Science
and the Modern World:

Whatever theory you choose, there is no light or colour as
a fact in external nature. There is merely motion of material.
Again, when the light enters your eyes and falls on the
retina, there is merely motion of material. Then your nerves
are affected and your brain is affected, and again this is
motion of material.... Nature is a dull affair, soundless,
scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, end-
lessly, meaninglessly.

However you disguise it, that is the practical outcome
of the characteristic scientific philosophy which closed the
seventeenth century

(p. 80).

Whence, then, arises that “pleasing delusion” of the
beauty of nature long shared by poets and artists?
Whitehead replies:

Nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for
ourselves: the rose for its scent; the nightingale for his song;
and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mis-
taken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and
turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency
of the human mind


It is probable that the eighteenth-century poets
might not have grasped the implications of the Carte-
sian, Lockean, Newtonian metaphysics as well as they
did, had it not been for Addison. In his essays on the
pleasures of the imagination, he put before his follow-
ers the picture of the new universe we have heard
described by Professors Burtt and Whitehead. Let us
limit ourselves at present to Addison's Spectator 413:

We are everywhere entertained with pleasing shows and
apparitions, we discover imaginary glories in the heavens,
and in the earth, and see some of this visionary beauty
poured out upon the whole creation; but what a rough
unsightly sketch of Nature should we be entertained with,


did all her colouring disappear, and the several distinctions
of light and shade vanish?...
I have here supposed that my reader is acquainted with
that great modern discovery, which is at present universally
acknowledged by all the inquirers into natural philosophy,
namely that light and colours, as apprehended by the imag-
ination, are only ideas in the mind and not qualities that
have any existence in matter.

Addison made use of a figure of speech which, like
many of his analogies, was picked up by his followers:

... our souls are at present delightfully lost and bewildered
in a pleasing delusion, and we walk about like the enchanted
hero in a romance, who sees beautiful castles, woods, and
meadows; and at the same time hears the warbling of birds,
and the purling of streams; but upon the finishing of some
secret spell, the fantastic scene breaks up, and the dis-
consolate knight finds himself on a barren heath, or in a
solitary desert.

Had the eighteenth-century poets been philosophers,
they might have felt themselves living in such a world,
and poetry would have fallen upon still more evil days.
But poets cannot continue long in an abstract world.
The school of Pope was carrying abstractions as far
as possible. In spite of their reading in philosophy, the
poets were not philosophers. Edward Young's Night
(1742-45) is the only long poem of the period
that might have been written according to the pre-
scription laid down by Addison in his generation, and
by Burtt and Whitehead in ours. Into the camera
obscura of perpetual night, Young retired in order that
Reason might see light pure, not colored, refracted,
inflected. There is no color in the Night Thoughts; there
is only light streaming down from heaven at night.
Mark Akenside was rather a philosophical poet than
a poet of Nature. In The Pleasures of Imagination
(1744) he shows clearly that

Mind, Mind alone, (bear witness, earth and heav'n!)
The living fountains in itself contains
Of beauteous and sublime:...

(Book I, lines 481-83).

Yet Akenside suggested no blame for the man who,
knowing nothing of the New Philosophy, walked
happily about, bending his ear “To the full choir of
water, air, and earth,” responding to a beauty he be-
lieved to be in Nature. Pope, Young, Akenside, in their
various ways, were indicative of one aspect of this
period in that they were largely abstract poets of
thought rather than concrete poets of Nature, reflecting
ideas of reality rather than reality itself.

Of all the poets who were publishing major poems
around 1744, James Thomson seems at first glance the
most ambivalent. No poet of the period discussed the
New Philosophy at greater length. There are moments
in The Seasons when we are highly conscious that
Thomson was writing in the age of Locke and Newton
and had developed the characteristic self-consciousness
about processes of vision and perception. No poet of
the period introduced as much discussion of such
processes into his work. Yet it was not for his philo-
sophical analyses that his age loved him and we re-
member him. Responsive though he was to Locke and
Newton, he never radically departed from his alle-
giance to the religious and poetical heritage that had
been his before he discovered the philosophers. He
never believed himself Addison's “disconsolate knight”
on a heath or desert. His soul was not “lost and be-
wildered in a pleasant delusion”; Nature, to him, was
no “rough unsightly sketch.” To Thomson beauty really
existed in external Nature. He climbed real hills to “See
the country, far-diffused around,” to describe affec-
tionately scenes with which he was entirely familiar.
Walking abroad in Nature, he responded to the im-
pressions of his senses to receive

The whole magnificence of heaven and earth,
And every beauty, delicate or bold.

The influence of Newton upon poetry—which he
would never have understood—continued throughout
the eighteenth century, though the climactic years
were from Newton's death to the mid-century. In the
last decade of the century another voice presaging the
romantic reaction against science begins to be heard
in William Blake. “Art is the Tree of Life,” he said
in one of his captions, “Science is the Tree of Death.”
Again and again in his marginalia, annotations, epi-
grams, and fragments, he introduced Newton's name,
often with those of Bacon, Descartes, and Locke, as
an enemy of art and poetry.

Reason says “Miracle”; Newton says “Doubt.”
Aye! that's the way to make all Nature out.
Bacon's philosophy was the beginning. “Bacon's Phi-
losophy has Ruin'd England,” Blake commented:
Newton & Bacon cry, being badly Nurst:
“He is all Experience from last to first.”
Newton was expert in mathematics. “God is not a
Mathematical Diagram,” commented Blake. “The End
of Epicurean or Newtonian Philosophy... is Athe-
ism.” Newton was associated in Blake's mind with all
that was anathema. To the earlier poets, Newton had
given the world new beauty with new truth. They had
glorified until they almost deified him. William Blake
presided at the poetic damnation of Sir Isaac Newton.


Joseph Addison, The Spectator, ed. with an introduction
and notes by Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1965). Mark


Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination (London, 1744). E. A.
Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Sci-
ence: A Historical and Critical Essay
(New York, 1924; 2nd
ed. rev. 1932). John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and
Natural Science: A Historical Interpretation
(Garden City,
N.Y., 1960). Hoxie Neale Fairchild, Religious Trends in
English Poetry,
6 vols. (New York, 1939-68). Elsie C.
Graham, Optics and Vision: The Background of the Meta-
physics of Berkeley
... (New York, 1929). William Powell
Jones, The Rhetoric of Science: A Study of Scientific Ideas
and Imagery in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry
and Los Angeles, 1966). Kenneth MacLean, John Locke and
English Literature of the Eighteenth Century
(New Haven,
1936). John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Under-
in Philosophical Works..., with a Preliminary
Essay and Notes by J[ames] A[ugustus] St. John, 2 vols.
(London, 1889), Vol. I. Isaac Newton, Opticks, Or a Treatise
on the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections & Colours of
preface by I. Bernard Cohen (New York, 1952).
Marjorie Nicolson, Newton Demands the Muse: Newton's
Opticks and the Eighteenth Century Poets
(Princeton, 1946).
Henry Pemberton, A View of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy
(London, 1728). Alexander Pope, Poems of Alexander Pope,
Twickenham Edition, 6 vols. in 7 (London, 1939-61). James
Thomson, The Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson,
ed. J. Logie Robertson (Oxford, 1908). Alfred North White-
head, Science and the Modern World. Lowell Lectures (New
York, 1925; also reprint). Edward Young, Night Thoughts
..., with Notes by the Rev. C. E. De Coetlogon (London,


[See also Beauty; Mountains; Newton on Method; Optics;
Romanticism; Sublime; Ut pictura poesis.]