Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Recap - Breath

Our second meeting of this term was 'a gas', as we explored the poetics and possibilities of pneumatic medicine. Our discussion of Polwhele's 'Eclogue' focused on a few themes:
  • 'Aero-medical science'
We considered the optimism around new gaseous discoveries and technologies, and the confidence that new kinds of air could be used as therapy and remedy. We explored the Romanticism of this kind of auto-experimentation, and the key role of figures such as Davy and Beddoes, and places such as the Pneumatic Institution. Comparison between epistolary, prose, and our set poetic descriptions of the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide, demonstrated how Polwhele drew on these other accounts, but pushed them to a satiric extreme.
  • Scientific poetry
We also set the poem in the context of a long 18thC tradition of verses on the Universe, or Botanic Garden, from Pope to Erasmus Darwin. We thought about the different poetic forms this corpus engaged with: some epic, some didactic, some comic (as here). Overall, we discussed how poetry like this formed a key part of (elite) British scientific culture at the time, including commentary on recent discoveries, and conveying accurate information (via footnotes, etc.). Indeed, the use of footnotes by Polwhele was a key topic of conversation.
  • Politics and fashion
We thought about how these publications were written in the shadow of the French Revolution, Terror, and Napoleonic Wars: in its very name the conservative Anti-Jacobin Review (where our text first appeared) echoed these concerns. We discussed the contrasting political commitments of conservative Polwhele with the more progressive politics of Beddoes, etc., hence the criticism of them under the guise of this poem. In general, we also thought about the contemporary fad or fashion for Laughing Gas (songs, satirical prints), and made comparisons with Davy's subsequently fashionable lectures at the Royal Institution.
  • The poem's success?
We agreed we had all enjoyed reading the poem, and its often superbly awful choice of rhymes; but that perhaps not all of its references were that easy to 'get', and that not all of its humour survives over two hundred years later. We thought about the different voices and characters of the (real) people depicted, and whether or not the author - with contrasting poetic styles - had succeeded in conveying this variegated and personalised bodily experience effectively. As the only stimulant we had to hand was sugar (in the form of a birthday cake for Simon), perhaps a full answer to that last question was not possible.
We closed the evening with the promised performance of two historic songs about Laughing Gas: the songs can be downloaded here and here from the Wellcome Images site.

Yours truly at the piano, with members of the group looking on. Photograph by Charissa.
Laughing Gas sheet music. Photograph by Charissa.

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