Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Sir Humphry Davy (17781829)
[Sir Humphry Davy was born at Penzance, on 17th December 1778. There was a strong literary and scientific spirit abroad in this neighbourhood at the time, as at Norwich, Lichfield, and other centres of country life, and Davy, apprenticed to a surgeon, read a good deal and studied chemistry a little. When he was twenty he was taken by Dr. Beddoes (father of the poet and brother-in-law of Miss Edgeworth) as an inmate of his house and an assistant in scientific labours at Clifton. There Davy made the acquaintance of Southey and Coleridge, and distinguished himself by his researches into laughing-gas. The repute of these established him, at the beginning of the present century, as chemical lecturer at the new Royal Institution, where his lectures became a fashion with London society. In 1812 he was made a knight, and married Mrs. Apreece, a lady of means and other attractions. Six years later, after his memorable work on the safety lamp, he was made a baronet; and shortly afterwards became President of the Royal Society. His later years were much troubled with ill health, and he died at Geneva on 29th May 1829. The bulk of his works, which appeared in nine vols. ten years after his death, is composed of lectures and papers, the Elements of Chemistry and Lectures on Agricultural Chemistry being the chief single items. His Salmonia (1828), and Consolations in Travel (1830), of a more literary character, were written partly to beguile his illness.]
IN the remarkable succession of chemical lecturers at the Royal Institutionthe second, the pupil and assistant of the first, the third, the pupil and assistant of the secondwho have covered in unbroken chain nearly the whole of the nineteenth century, Sir Humphry Davy stands as a man of letters (in which capacity alone we are here concerned with him) above Faraday and below Tyndall. Early as he was introduced to the society of pure men of letters, and various as his own early attempts are said to have been, the spoken rather than the written word appears to have been his forte. His destiny and vocation, however, led him to the former, and it is not easy to judge what might have been the case if things had been different. Most of his scientific work does not lend itself to excerpt here, but the first two passages given below (the one from the Elements of Chemistry, the other the separately preserved fragment of a lecture) will show that he had a more than respectable command of the more formal and mannered style with which, during his day, scientific writers were still wont to diversify and adorn the record of their observations and discoveries. In the mere importance and value of these last (they chiefly concerned electricity), great authorities have pronounced him to be inferior to no one.
Of his non-scientific work Salmonia was, at the date of its appearance and for some time afterwards, warmly praised; though Wilson, in Blackwood, attacked its sportsmanship as cockney and its general tone as valetudinarian and milksop. The limitation of the claret at the fishermens dinner to half-a-pint a man seems to have had an undue effect on Christophers criticism; but the praise was certainly in some cases overstrained. Salmonia is a pleasant book and interesting in literary history, less as an imitation of Walton than because in many passages it shows an important advance in the literature descriptive of Nature, and reminds us that Mr. Ruskin was already born. Sir Walter Scott, who was a sort of connection of Lady Davys, reviewed it very favourably in the Quarterly, and indeed Davy was as much at home with the Scottish literary circle as with that of the Lakes (where his early Bristol friends had settled, and where he was a companion of Wordsworth and of Scott himself in a famous walk on Helvellyn) and with that of London. The Consolations, more ambitious and philosophical in tone, are rather less successful. On the whole, however, Davy is most interesting as a member of the school of scientific writers who came between those of the eighteenth century proper, and those wholly of the nineteenththe former, men of letters whose subject was natural philosophy, the latter, men of science who only in rare instances pay deliberate attention to literary cultivation and form. His own attention to and achievement in these were more than respectable, and he added to these good taste, and a pleasant, if rather thin, humour.