Why did one of the Ri's most renowned scientists, Humphry Davy, keep a series of poems from his admirers?
On Valentine’s Day in 1805, Humphry Davy (1778-1829), the most celebrated English chemist of the Romantic period, received an anonymous poem at the Royal Institution that neither he nor historians have been able to ignore. Davy received at least another three verses of this kind while he was at the Ri, conveying both Davy’s celebrity status and the popularity of his lectures between 1801 until 1812.
Laden with his ideas on the creativity and power of chemistry, Davy’s lectures and pioneering research in electrochemistry formed his prolific career and extraordinary fame, which culminated with his baronetcy in 1818. Commentators attending his lectures observed that a notable number of women comprised the "most attentive portion". Some evidently felt compelled to write admiring poems on their charismatic lecturer.
Davy kept the four anonymous poems so that they can now be found in the same box as each other in the Ri archives. And it is clear that he valued them as much more than just mere miscellaneous keepsakes. The poems were copied out twice in a series in two of Davy’s personal notebooks but are not written in Davy’s unintelligible handwriting. Surprisingly, the poems are in the tidy and meticulous hand of his assistant, Michael Faraday.
Before becoming the discoverer of electromagnet induction, Faraday, as Davy’s assistant, was often employed to copy out Davy’s scientific researches and correspondence, most famously on Davy’s miners’ safety lamp. In addition to writing Davy’s research in the Ri’s notebooks, Davy also tasked his assistant to remind him of the effect of his work and public lectures on his audiences.
What Faraday thought of these poems, we may never know. At first, the existence of two series of poems of this kind suggests Davy’s pomposity. But perhaps the other three poems copied out by Faraday next to these imply something more complex? Was the series of poems on Davy’s controlled ability as a lecturer an exercise for Davy to remind himself of his distance from his tempestuous feelings for an unrequited love?
On one of the series of poems copied out by Faraday, Davy wrote “A.B.” beneath the three other poems from Anna Beddoes. Anna was the wife of Thomas Beddoes who had employed Davy at the Pneumatic Institute from 1798 until 1801 to research the curative aspects of gases, such as nitrous oxide. While there are biographies on the radical and philanthropic Doctor Thomas Beddoes, Anna is an interesting figure in history who has yet to receive a biography or study on her life.
Part of an influential literary, industrial, and philosophical circle, Anna was the daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a Lunar Society member, and sister to the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Davy stayed at the Beddoes’s home when he first moved to Bristol in 1798 and began a friendship with Anna, five years his senior, during which he discovered her unhappiness with her marriage. Some historians argue that their friendship could have been one reason for Davy’s departure from Bristol in 1801. However Davy and Anna continued to send poems and letters to each other while Davy was at the Ri, including those transcribed by Faraday.
Anna’s poems are in the same admiring and distant tone as the other anonymous verses in Davy’s two notebooks. Yet, Davy’s poems on Anna can shed more light on their intimate friendship, and why he kept Anna’s poems in a series that included a Valentine’s Day poem.
Davy’s poems on Anna, which were never published in his lifetime, range from composed reflections on their friendship to tempestuous and confused longing. There are many in Davy’s notebooks that show his careful and measured recollections as he self-consciously casts himself as remote from his past emotion and thereby from Anna. For example, the poem below, titled “To Anna Maria B.” insists that the mind continually experiences and develops, ultimately reaching reasoned maturity.
Davy adopts the perspective of a categorising chemist who can now consider his past mental state from the perspective of a man of reason. The past is presented as distant yet passion-filled, the present as the pinnacle of calm, and the future informed by his intellect. The poem presents us with a poet who is trying to assert his mental strength to a female companion of the past. Like the deletion of her name in the title, Davy seeks to present himself as free from her influence.
In contrast to his careful poems on Anna, Davy’s notebooks are, at times, interspersed with emotion-filled fragmentary lines on his feelings for “Anna” or an unnamed woman, who is most likely Anna Beddoes. For example, under a draft letter composed in November 1800, a few fragmentary lines show his emotional intimacy with Anna:
Anna thou art lovely ever
Lovely in tears
Brighter in tears of joy
Another of Davy’s personal notebooks used from 1804, which begins with a poem on his distant feelings from Anna, also shows draft lines on the speaker’s anger at his lover’s unstable emotions. One page in particular reveals his differing emotions:
At the top of the page is a fragmentary line where he declares: “My friend, my sister long Remember me!” Despite these lines on the hope that she remains in his memory, the poem beneath begins with the resentment: “Ungrateful Girl, my Heart No more / For thee shall tremble.”
In contrast to these fragmentary lines, Davy’s series of poems from his admirers and Anna, dutifully copied out by Faraday, may well have been placed together to reassure him of both the changing fortunes of his career and of his tumultuous passions. Davy’s personal notebooks illustrate his conflicting emotions during his youth. A Valentine’s Day poem that defines him as a controlled and persuasive lecturer was perhaps how Davy hoped to be remembered.
Wahida Amin (@WahidaAmin) has recently completed her PhD on the poetry and science of Humphry Davy.
Records on the trailblazing geologist Anne Phillips are few and far between, here are four facts you may not have heard of.
Posted on8th March 2021
PhD student, Naomi Heffer, reflects on her experiences working as the Ri’s digital intern.
Posted to Behind the scenes on27th March 2020