In 1974, Richard Holmes announced his arrival as one of the Romantic era’s best biographers with 800-plus pages on Shelley; volumes on Coleridge and less-remembered contemporaries have arrived steadily since. His ambitious new tome, The Age Of Wonder: How The Romantic Generation Discovered The Beauty And Terror Of Science, clumps his well-known previous subjects in the background, re-reading their work through their era’s scientific breakthroughs. Holmes examines the age’s big discoveries—bookended by Joseph Banks’ 1769 arrival in Tahiti and Charles Darwin’s embarkation for the Galapagos in 1831—through a masterfully done group portrait. In 1769, the word “scientist” didn’t even exist; everyone was a “philosopher.” By the end of the era, the word was coined and Darwin was ready to deliver some innocuous thoughts on birds. In between, figures like William Herschel and Humphry Davy were just as important to Keats and Byron as any of their artistic contemporaries.
Holmes begins in 1769, with Banks. Captain Cook’s official botanist, Banks quickly became an unofficial liaison between the Polynesians and the crew. Between nights sleeping in the forest with nubile natives, Banks gathered more than 1,300 plant specimens unknown to Europe; at home, the collection made him the age’s presiding scientific mentor. Under his watch and encouragement, Herschel found Uranus, Davy discovered laughing gas, and the public went nuts for science. But Holmes is just as interested in, say, Herschel’s enigmatic relationship with his sister Caroline—so tumultuous, she destroyed 10 years of private journals before anyone could read them—as Herschel’s initial forays into the idea of “deep time” and the idea that the universe might be fathomlessly large and godless.
Holmes deftly juggles juicy biography and concrete science, but his aim is larger. Unsurprisingly, Holmes is excellent at close-reading the scientists’ intellectual traces in everything from Keats to Frankenstein, or better yet, finding Romantic tropes and phrases in the science. His prose is casually graceful, even for minor walk-ons (as when describing Thomas Carlyle as “fiercely bearded for the fight” during his critical emergence). Holmes is getting at the idea of the Romantic era as the first incubator of our present-day conception of the universe. When he notes, as the book is winding down, that Darwin claimed to be more influenced by Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse On The Study Of Natural Philosophy and Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative more than any other books, he’s made a plausible case not just for the entertainment value of his subjects, but for their lasting intellectual influence as well.