Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Poetry and Science: Fundamentally the Same

lewilliams's picture

Poetry and Science: Fundamentally the Same


An important warning was voiced to me on the act of writing about an author’s intent. When one attempts to do such a thing as actively write about such a thing as the intent of the author, this person should know the intent of the author from the author him/herself. I have no such reference to aide me in knowing the exact intent of the author. I seek merely to claim an assumed intent in all pieces of literature based on the form in which the pieces were published. Since “… difficulty in the evaluation and application of artist’s intent was traced to ambiguity of the term “intent”, (Dykstra) I wish to clarify myself before I begin, by defining some of my terminology as quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary Online:

Fiction-- The species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters; fictitious composition. Now usually, prose novels and stories collectively; the composition of works of this class.

Nonfiction-- Prose writing other than fiction, such as history, biography, and reference works, esp. that which is concerned with the narrative depiction of factual events; the genre comprising this.

Poetry—(1) The art or work of a poet; (2) Imaginative or creative literature in general; fable, fiction.

Science-- Knowledge acquired by study; acquaintance with or mastery of any department of learning.

It is generally accepted that there is a fundamental difference between a piece of poetry (the art or work of a poet) and that of a scientific text—very much like that of the assumed gap between fiction and nonfiction. The difference we perceive between science and poetry may not be as large as that that we see between fiction and nonfiction, but is certainly one that would appear to be solid. Poetry is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as being “imaginative or creative literature in general” while science is “knowledge acquired through study.” Interestingly, though, these definitions could very easily be applied to both science and poetry. Looking at Eliot’s The Wasteland and Darwin’s The Origin of Species it is easy to see where the line blurs. Eliot’s poetry becomes a science and Darwin’s science becomes poetry.

Just look at the first line of Darwin’s introduction, “When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past in habitants of that continent.” Darwin was “on board H.M.S ‘Beagle,’ and “struck” with these facts. Immediately, an image comes to mind of a wizened man on the deck of a boat suddenly having a moment of epiphany as the wind blows his hair in the wind. From the start of the text, Darwin is showing his creativity through not just his thoughts but his word choice. He describes a moment of revelation that could not possibly be completely factual. It is apparent later in the text that his conclusions required quite a bit of context and observations that could not have possibly come to him, fantastic naturalist though he is, in one great and powerful moment. Still, what could be more imaginative or creative than observing life around you and thinking of how all of life could have developed over time into what it is today? Choosing the right words to describe it?

Now look at this line from the notes from Eliot’s The Wasteland, “To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.” Does this not show signs of knowledge acquired through study? Eliot’s poetry is indebted to previous works that he has studied; “volumes” of books. But it is not just through Eliot’s notes that the observation that the entire poetic text is a result of study can be made. Any given line in The Wasteland can be looked at as a studied interpretation or statement. Even a line as simple as, “April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain,” is a studied statement echoing Chaucer as well as the poet’s own observations.Eliot, in fact, seemed to understand poetry as trying to rid itself of personality, shown in this line from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality…It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science.” So poetry, at least to Eliot, is at least striving to be science if it isn’t a science already.

In looking at the examples I’ve shown, either text could be considered under the definition of the other. What seems to make the singular difference in all of this is what we perceive each text to represent and set out to do. The only real perceivable difference between these two texts is the way the author’s observations about the world are presented visually. Where Eliot’s are in verse form, Darwin’s are in prose form. Eliot creates a deeply emotional mood in his work using tight, specific, and powerful words, where Darwin is more loose, repetitive, and verbose (a tool that seems to create an atmosphere of science for the reader). All in all, it is what the reader brings to the table that actually offers a definition of the text. What seems to guide our perceptions is difficult to pin down, however.

There is no exact difference between poetry and science, because people are a large variable in the equation—a messy and unpredictable variable—and make any exact definition impossible to find. Both science and poetry can be, and usually are, creative and imaginative as well as a representation of knowledge through study. They are subjects linked in the common goal of understanding the world. Yes, they present themselves as being very different from one another to the public, but in the end this difference is merely perception based on presentation and pre-conceived notions. Looking at these two fields as blurred and the same, as we have been instructed in class, it is easy to see where our pre-conceived notions fail. Poetry and Science are fundamentally the same.







Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. New York: Broadview P, 2003.

Eliot, Thomas S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The Sacred Word: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London, 1960.

The Waste Land and Other Poems. Danbury: Barnes & Noble, Incorporated, 2005.



Serendip Visitor's picture

More on the science "vs" poetry problem

C.P. Snow's well-articulated notion of a divide between the literary arts and the sciences carried more weight than (in my opinion) it should have. The roots of poetry and the roots of science in each case stem from the "Sea of Ambiguity": only the methods used for dealing with buckets of the stuff (ambiguity) differ, depending upon the approach. A mission of science is to eradicate ambiguity where it can, and corral it into a defined area, if it can't be eliminated. A mission of poetry is to explore ambiguity; highlight its very nature, describe it in novel ways, and hold it up as a common denominator of human condition.

I've been whacking at the so-called divide for over 20 years, and can say with authority, it is SLOW GOING! "Circle, Turtle, Ashes" (see, though, is now being used as a supplemental text in a science pre-service teacher education course at the University of Georgia to good effect. With luck, perhaps a larger fraction of the next generation of scientists will come on-board to the idea that poetry and science are closer than one might suppose. Watch for the review of "Circle, Turtle, Ashes" in Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), due out within a few months!

Anne Dalke's picture

Querying the Relation

I see you taking, here, our course binary of science “vs” literature to another level, by drawing a pointed, text-based comparison between science and poetry, in order to argue that there is no—or no substantive, only visual—distinction to be made between the two.

My first question is whether you are talking about science as practiced or science as written-about; your description (of “knowledge acquired by study”) seems to be of the practice, but your data (of how Eliot writes) seems to be of the representation of that practice. I wonder if it would be helpful to tease apart those two dimensions a bit; as Jillian argues in “Science as Story,” science’s audiences span a spectrum, from practitioners to the public, and how science is both presented and received will vary according to that context, in particular according to how much the audience knows about what they are being told.

My second question has to do w/ my confusion about your conclusion: are you saying that the “fundamental sameness” between science and poetry is due to the variability of their audiences (so that no definition of either is possible, since all is altered in the reception); or that “they [falsely] present themselves as being very different” (so that the definitional troubles lie with the writers, not with the readers)?

Finally, I’m surprised by your characterization that “you have been instructed in class” to “look @ these two fields as the same.” I’d say rather that you’ve been invited to query the relation between them….