Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Parallels between Art and Science
By Sir Humphry Davy (17781829)
THE CHARACTERS of the poet and painter have been often compared; and the analogy between their objects and their methods is so striking, as to have been generally felt and acknowledged. Visible images constitute the great charm of poetry, and they are the elements of painting; and the end of both arts is to represent the admirable in nature, and to awaken pleasurable, useful, or noble feelings. Painting, however, appeals to the eye by immediate characters; it possesses a stronger chain of association with passion; it is a more distinct and energetic language, and acts first by awakening sensation and then ideas. Poetry is less forcible, for it operates only by imagination and memory, and not by immediate impression; unless indeed in the performances of the drama, or in impassioned recitation. A representation by words is inferior in strength to representation by images; but it has the advantage in being more varied, and capable of a more extensive application. It speaks of sentiments and thoughts and affections, which can never be delineated by the pencil; and it has within its power, not only the world of sensation, but likewise the world of intellect.
In music the powers of art are infinitely more limited than in poetry or painting. The pleasure results from mere combinations of sounds; and is as transient as the motions of the air, by which they are produced. To communicate feeling is the highest attribute of the art. Its means are wholly inadequate to convey ideas, and the attempts at imitation have generally produced only a ludicrous effect. It has this advantage, however, over poetry and painting, that its influence is more immediate and instantaneous, and perceived without study or reflection; that it acts as if by enchantment, and appealing merely to sensation, yet subdues both imagination and memory; makes the soul obedient to its impulses, and creates for the time a world of its own.
The mechanical arts and the fine arts can hardly be compared; the objects of the first being utility, of the last, pleasure. The mechanical arts delight us only indirectly, and by indistinct associations; the fine arts either directly or by immediate associations. The steam-engine may be an object of wonder, as connected with the power by which it was produced, and the power which it exerts; but to understand its beneficial effects requires extensive knowledge, or a long detail of facts. Mechanism in general is too complicated to produce any general effect of pleasure. Inventions are admired by the multitude, more on account of their novelty or strangeness, than on account of their use or ingenuity. The watch which is the guide of our time, is employed and considered with indifference; but we pay half-a-crown to see a self-moving spider of steel.
In the truths of the natural sciences there is, perhaps, a nearer analogy to the productions of the refined arts. The contemplation of the laws of the universe is connected with an immediate tranquil exaltation of mind, and pure mental enjoyment. The perception of truth is almost as simple a feeling as the perception of beauty; and the genius of Newton, of Shakespeare, of Michael Angelo, and of Handel, are not very remote in character from each other. Imagination, as well as reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophical mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery. Discrimination and delicacy of sensation, so important in physical research, are other words for taste; and the love of nature is the same passion, as the love of the magnificent, the sublime, and the beautiful.
The pleasure derived from great philosophical discoveries is less popular and more limited in its immediate effect, than that derived from the refined arts; but it is more durable and less connected with fashion or caprice. Canvas and wood, and even stone, will decay. The work of a great artist loses all its spirit in the copy. Words are mutable and fleeting; and the genius of poetry is often dissipated in translation. The compositions of music may remain, but the hand of execution may be wanting. Nature cannot decay; the language of her interpreters will be the same in all times. It will be an universal tongue speaking to all countries, and all ages, the excellence of the work, and the wisdom of the Creator.