I was expecting to pore over a poem handwritten by one of history’s most influential chemists. Sir Humphry Davy lived in Britain around the turn of the 19th century. He invented a lamp that saved miners’ lives, discovered and isolated chemical elements, coined the term “laughing gas,” and inspired younger researchers through public lectures.
Davy wrote not only scientific papers, but also poetry. He befriended contemporaries known today as “Romantic poets,” including Samuel Taylor Coleridge. English literature and the history of science rank among the specialties of the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. The Huntington collects manuscripts and rare books, and I secured a reader card this July. I aspired to find a poem by Davy.
Bingo: The online catalogue contained an entry entitled “To the glow worm.” I requested the manuscript and settled into the hushed, wood-paneled reading room.
Davy had written scarcely legibly, in black ink, on a page that had creased and torn. I glanced over the lines, then realized that the manuscript folder contained two other pages. The pages had stuck together, so I gently flipped the lot over.
A line at the top of the back page seized the wheel of my attention.
“Methinks, I know one kind like you.”
The line’s intimacy arrested me. I heard a speaker contemplating someone whom he or she had met recently, turning the person over in the speaker’s mind, gaining purchase on the person’s identity. “I know you,” I heard the speaker saying, and I saw the speaker wagging a finger at the person. “I know your type…I think.”
The line’s final six words suggested impulsiveness. How can you know someone you’re still wrapping your head around? I felt inclined to suggest a spoonful of circumspection. But perhaps the speaker was reflecting more than I’d allowed: “Methinks” suggested temperance, an acknowledgement of uncertainty.
I backpedaled to the folder’s cover. “Includes verse and letter by Lady Davy,” it read. Jane Apreece, a wealthy widow, acquired the title Lady Davy upon marrying Sir Humphry. She enjoyed a reputation for social savvy, fashionableness, and sharpness. I’d intruded on her poem, a response to Davy’s. Apreece’s pages begged for a transcription, which I struggled through until the reading room closed 45 minutes later. Dan Lewis, the Huntington’s Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology, later improved upon my attempt (parenthesized text ours):
Methinks, I know one kind like you,
Thine(?) to peace, & Nature true;
Kindled by Feeling’s purest flame,
In Storm, or Calm, for ages(?) the same.
Bestowing most its brilliant Light,
Amidst the tranquil shades of Night;
And prompt to solace, raise, & cheer(?),
The heart, subdued by Doubt or Care.
Though not of busy Life afraid
Yet loving best, the pastoral Shade;
Shedding a Ray, more clear & pure,
A Ray, which longer shall endure,
As Friendships light must ever prove
More steadfast than the Flame of Love.
Light recurs throughout the verse: The speaker refers to two flames, to a “Ray,” and to a “brilliant Light // Amidst the tranquil shades of Night.” Comparisons with light suit a scientist, who reveals aspects of nature never witnessed before. (I expect that the speaker directs the apostrophe toward Davy.) Comparisons with light suit Davy not only professionally, but also, to Apreece, personally: Each member of the couple inspired the other to learn. Their poems reflect their intellectual symbiosis: Apreece’s references to light complement the glow worm, which Davy called “lively living lamp of night.”
The final two lines arrested me as the first line did. The speaker contrasts “Friendship[’]s light” with “the Flame of Love.” Finite resources can’t sustain flames, which consume candles, wood, and oxygen. Once its fuel disappears, flame proves less than “steadfast.” Similarly, love can’t survive on passion’s flames. Love should rest on friendship, which sheds the “light” extolled throughout the poem. Light enhances our vision, providing the wisdom needed to sustain love throughout life’s vicissitudes.
These two lines reveal the temperance hinted at by the “Methinks.” The speaker argues for levelheadedness, for balancing emotion with sustainability. Spoonful of circumspection retracted.
The clock struck 4:45, and readers began returning their manuscripts and books to the circulation desk. I stood up—and pricked myself on a thorn of realization. The catalogue dated the manuscript to “perhaps [ . . . ] 1811 – they [Davy and Apreece] were married in 1812.” The lovers exchanged these poems without knowing that their marriage would sour years later. I’d read about their relationship—as about Davy’s science and poetry—in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder.
At least the Davys reunited when Sir Humphry’s last illness struck. At least they remained together until he died. At least a reader can step, through the manuscript, into the couple’s patch of happiness. One can hope see more clearly for their—a scientist’s, a societal navigator’s, and two human beings’—light.
If anyone has insights or has corrections to the transcription, please comment. I haven’t transcribed Davy’s poem, which might illuminate Lady Davy’s response.
With thanks to the Huntington Library of San Marino, CA, for the use of its collection. With thanks to Dan Lewis for improving upon my transcription and for prodding, for five years, toward a reader card.
Here’s what it looks like to me:
Me thinks I know one kind like you
That are to peace and nature true
Kindled by Feeling’s purest flame,
In Storm, or Calm, for aye the same.
And the rest looks correct.
Thanks for your thoughts, Peter! I received another vote for “aye” upon posting this article on Facebook.
No, looking more closely, I think it’s “Alike to peace & Nature true.” Compare the second word of the first line to the “like” in the first line.
This is a brilliant article, really well presented. It would be really lovely to mention that although he lived in Britain, he was Cornish. He is a well renowned figure in Cornwall and it’s a fact that’s often very overlooked. Many thanks.
Thanks for your comment, Matt! I’m glad that you enjoyed the article, and good point about Cornwall. Holmes paints Davy’s early life skillfully in The Age of Wonder; I recommend the treatment to any readers intrigued by Matt’s comment.