Sir Humphrey Davy and the Romantics - an Online Course

I am pleased to introduce Sharon Ruston to my readers. Sharon is a Shelley and Romantics scholar who is the Chair of the English Department at Lancaster University.  Her main research interests are in the relations between the literature, science and medicine of the Romantic period, 1780-1820. Her first book, Shelley and Vitality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), explored the medical and scientific contexts which inform Shelley's concept of vitality in his major poetry. Her most recent book, Creating Romanticism: Case Studies in the Literature, Science, and Medicine of the 1790s (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) has chapters on Mary Wollstonecraft's interest in natural history, William Godwin's interest in mesmerism, and Humphry Davy’s writings on the sublime. Sharon is currently co-editing the Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy and his Circle, to be published in four volumes by Oxford University Press.

 Sharon Ruston, Chair, Department of English, Lancaster University.

Sharon Ruston, Chair, Department of English, Lancaster University.

Sharon is offering a free online course through Future Learn called "Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp".  These types of course are fun and informative. If you are interested in Shelley you will want to learn more about Davy because Shelley studied him closely.  Shelley was one of the last great polymaths - he was well versed with a range of subjects that dwarfs most of his famous contemporaries.  Science was one of them.  To understand Shelley fully, you need to understand his interest in science - this course can help you to do this.

You can find Sharon on Twitter @SharonRuston and at Lancaster University. Here is her guest column.


This autumn you can participate in a free, online course on a man of science whom P. B. Shelley greatly admired, Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829).

 Sir Humphry Davy. Thomas Phillips National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Humphry Davy. Thomas Phillips National Portrait Gallery, London

Anyone can sign up and all are welcome from people who know nothing about Davy to those who are already aware of just how fascinating a figure he is. Shelley was certainly interested in Davy: Shelley made copious, extensive notes on one of Davy’s most popular works Elements of Agricultural Chemistry (1813) sometime around 1820. I have speculated on why Shelley was so interested in these in my book Shelley and Vitality, which more generally considered Shelley’s interest in science and medicine.

Davy was a friend of S. T. Coleridge, Maria Edgeworth, William Godwin, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and many other poets and novelists of the period. He was the first person to inhale nitrous oxide – when it was thought to be fatal to do so – and he did this in Bristol with a circle of radical figures. Anna Barbauld even tried it (and Davy appears in her poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven), as did Peter Mark Roget, the physician who would write the Thesaurus. Davy isolated more chemical elements than any other person has before or since and he did this using the new science of electrochemistry, something that Shelley was extremely interested in.

At Oxford University, T. J. Hogg reported that Shelley possessed ‘an electrical machine, an air-pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers’ with which to create various chemical and medical preparations. Hogg ridiculed Shelley’s vision of a galvanic battery of ‘colossal magnitude, a well-arranged system of hundreds of metallic plates’, but in doing so only revealed his own lack of scientific knowledge. Davy built such a battery, a pile of 2000 plates, with which to conduct his experiments. Davy was also the friend of Byron, meeting him in London and Ravenna, and indeed he wrote two poems about Byron, one written after he heard of Byron’s death. Byron immortalized the miners’ safety lamp that came to be known as the ‘Davy Lamp’ in Canto One of Don Juan, writing: ‘Sir Humphry Davy's lantern, by which coals / Are safely mined for’.

 The Davy Lamp which saved countless lives.

The Davy Lamp which saved countless lives.

Mary Shelley noted in her journal that she read one of Davy’s books almost every day in 1816. This is exactly when she was writing Frankenstein.

Laura E. Crouch, writing in the Keats-Shelley Journal in 1978 suggests the book she read was Davy's A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry. Crouch suggests this work accurately reflects "the scientific ideas presented in the novel and the scientific optimism that shaped the character of the young Frankenstein and thus led him to undertake his "monstrous" project. She also observed the similarities between Victor Frankenstein’s and Professor Waldman’s pronouncements on nature and the progress of modern science:

"The spirit of enthusiasm that Davy conveyed to his fashionable London audience was the same spirit that led Frankenstein to begin his scientific experiments. The feeling of awe concerning the potential for scientific discovery was excited in Frankenstein during the introductory lecture to M. Waldman's course in chemistry at the university at Ingolstad." (38)
Frankenstein engraving.png

Davy and his wife, like most English aristocrats of their time were well aware of second generation romantics like Shelley and Byron. And we have some indication of what they thought of them.  We have, for example, a letter from Sir Humphry’s wife to friends in Geneva written during the summer of 1816. This was the so-called “year without summer” and the year when Byron and the Shelleys had taken up summer residence at the Villa Diodati across the lake from Geneva.

 The Villa Diodati

The Villa Diodati

Clearly word of the allegedly scandalous behavior at the Villa had travelled to London because Lady Davy wrote to her friends alluding to it. She wrote:

‘I conclude all our late publications have reached you, from the very many English who must have lately been at Geneva. (some of them say little for our morality or good nature, & indeed that Readers of Libel & Indecency scarcely escape the weight of censure due to the Authors. Helenism is our last poetical flower, neither very potent nor sweet in my opinion; but Sir H’s sentence on its merits is very favourable & & he may be more just.’

Lady Davy was clearly unimpressed by the kind of poetry being written by the Shelley-Byron circle (which she curiously refers to as “Helenism”), whereas, as she admits, Davy was more in its favour – “his sentence on [meaning opinion of] its merits is very favourable…” I am sure that such a verdict from someone they so highly respected would have gratified Percy and Mary.  It is uncertain whether Davy ever actually met Percy and Mary, though they were in Rome at the same time in April 1819 (Shelley arrived in Rome on 5th March 1819 and left Rome on 10th June), but if they had it seems likely they would have had lots to talk about. 

The online course ‘Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp’ will explore some of the many connections between Davy and the Romantic poets. We will look at Davy’s relationship with key writers of the day such as Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Byron and Coleridge. Perhaps the most innovative thing about the course is the emphasis it gives to Davy’s poetry: many of his poems can be read and heard on the course. Davy will be considered as a Romantic poet himself, and his poems on Mont Blanc, Cornwall, ‘genius’, and ‘life’ put into this context for all to enjoy.   

You can buy Sharon's book, Shelley and Vitality, here:

I heartily recommend buying this book from your local bookseller.  Just send them this link and ask them to order it for you. Support your local community.